What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

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RusticBohemian
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What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby RusticBohemian » Sat Feb 22, 2020 8:39 pm

*Spoiler Warning* for Lost Robot

I just finished Dean Wesley Smith's "Lost Robot," from Writers of the Future #35. I'm hoping to discuss why this was a well-received story and what its strengths were. I bring this up not to be critical, but because I'm trying to understand good writing and what may be missing from my own stories.

I hadn't read anything from Dean before reading this story, but the intro says that he's an extremely popular and prolific author. I believe the characters involved in the story are part of a series. I'm sure he must know what he's doing, I just don't get what that is.

After reading it, here are my thoughts:

1) The writing is good and flows well. Nothing drags on, and the writing expresses the personality of the main character. It grabbed my attention at the start well enough to keep me reading.

2) The are several interesting ideas and characters that caught my interest. I kept thinking, oh, I'd like to hear more about that and/or see how that plays out, but the short story didn't explore these topics in any greater depth.

3) The story didn't really seem to do the things we'd expect from a story:
----- The MC solved a problem by finding the robot, but it wasn't a challenge for her to do so. She just called down first one, and then another superhero/god type helpers, who sort of deus ex machinaed the situation for her. She seemed to have almost no role in actually accomplishing the goal other than asking for help.
------ The characters did not appear to grow or change during the course of the story.
------ The MC didn't have to pay a price for her victory, sacrifice at all, etc.

It was a fine for what it was, but there just didn't seem to be very much story here to me. Maybe I'd call it a vignette?

What kind of story would you consider this to be? Are there elements that I'm missing that made it stand out to you?

Would you tell me what you liked about it and what you think drew WOTF to want to publish it?

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AlexH
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby AlexH » Sun Feb 23, 2020 4:40 am

More spoiler warnings...

It's a while since I read Lost Robot, but I remember it being an entertaining story without there being any conflict. My thoughts are similar to yours. The speculative elements seemed unbelievable as the detective had superpowers that came out of nowhere. This character features regularly in Dean Wesley Smith's series, so his fans will be aware of the detective's abilities. The story felt more suited to existing fans of the series.

What drew WotF to publish it? Dean Wesley Smith is a WotF winner and a name to attract more readers for the WotF winners. Though it's helpful to analyse what we think does and doesn't work whatever the story, I believe the WotF winners are the stories we should be focusing on if we want to win WotF ourselves. If we can do what DWS does well in "Lost Robot," adding the conflict, character arc and cost, we have a WotF winner of our own!
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby Andy Dibble » Sun Feb 23, 2020 9:49 am

I'm going to take as a given that "Lost Robot" is a good story because this discussion is moot otherwise.

Margaret Atwood has said that the cardinal rule of fiction is "hold my attention." I think that is essentially true, and I think most writers would agree that it's at least an important rule of writing fiction. So I don't think the important question is, "Why is it a good story even though it's missing conflict, character arcs, etc." but why does it hold readers' attention? i.e. what are it's strengths. I remember Lost Robot having rich characters and clean prose. Perhaps others noticed other strengths.

"Lost Robot" reminds us that good stories don't need to succeed in every respect. Indeed, I think it's very rare when we consider a story deeply and find that it has no notable flaws. WotF stories might (almost always) require conflict, rich description, a clear problem to solve, etc. but not every good story does. For a radical example, consider "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury. It's an extremely well-received story, and it's not every clear it has any characters!

RusticBohemian
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby RusticBohemian » Sun Feb 23, 2020 11:52 am

So are you suggesting "Lost Robot," might not have passed muster had it been an entry from an unknown author submitting it to the competition, but that it can still be a great story despite this?

If that's the case, it brings up the question for me of why such a story would not be accepted if it stands strong on its own merits, despite lacking conflict, character growth, and the normal things the judges say they are looking for. Why does a double standard exist? Or am I misinterpreting the situation as a double standard? I would really like to know what the judges would have thought of the story.

There's a short story that I love that has similar, "issues." It's "The Man Who Planted Trees," by Jean Giono. It's not more of a plot arch than Lost Robot, perhaps, but not by a great margin. I love it none the less. But I've always wondered if such a work would ever pass muster with the judges.

Andy Dibble wrote:Lost Robot" reminds us that good stories don't need to succeed in every respect. Indeed, I think it's very rare when we consider a story deeply and find that it has no notable flaws. WotF stories might (almost always) require conflict, rich description, a clear problem to solve, etc. but not every good story does. For a radical example, consider "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury. It's an extremely well-received story, and it's not every clear it has any characters!

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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby storysinger » Sun Feb 23, 2020 12:22 pm

AlexH wrote:What drew WotF to publish it? Dean Wesley Smith is a WotF winner and a name to attract more readers for the WotF winners.


IMHO that statement says it all. The stories being accepted in the contest now have to satisfy what the sitting judges want to see.

Dean Wesley Smith has sold at least 200 novels and hundreds of short stories, I just googled that for accuracy. With those numbers he has to have a substantial fan base.

As you interact with the members of the forum you'll find that everyone wants to help each other succeed.

The same can be said for everyone involved with WotF. By having a story with as much draw as DWS it exposes his fans to the winning stories that get in the anthology, thereby helping the new writers.
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Andy Dibble
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby Andy Dibble » Mon Feb 24, 2020 12:51 am

RusticBohemian wrote:So are you suggesting "Lost Robot," might not have passed muster had it been an entry from an unknown author submitting it to the competition, but that it can still be a great story despite this?

If that's the case, it brings up the question for me of why such a story would not be accepted if it stands strong on its own merits, despite lacking conflict, character growth, and the normal things the judges say they are looking for. Why does a double standard exist? Or am I misinterpreting the situation as a double standard? I would really like to know what the judges would have thought of the story.


I'm not sure I would call "Lost Robot" a "great" story. I'd call it a good story, and I don't think it's clear that WotF future judges thought it was great. Maybe DWS didn't even think it great! He just wanted to draw readers to the anthology, as AlexH and storysinger have said. There absolutely is a double standard because DWS's story got in the anthology by a different process than our stories do and for different reasons. I don't mean "double standard" in a negative sense; when you choose stories for different reasons, a double standard arises necessarily.

There are some features of WotF winning stories that are almost indispensable (conflict, rich description, one or more problems to solve come to mind). I think a story would have to be breathtakingly strong in other respects (original premise, a fresh voice, pacing, character growth etc.) in order to overcome weakness in the former. The later list of features are definite bonuses, but I wouldn't call them indispensable. But try to check off as many boxes as you can! When you're competing against thousands of other writers, trying to stand strong only on whatever merits your story has is somewhere between a great risk and an act of self-deception.

Of course, what makes a good story is in great part subjective, so me making a list of features is simplistic. But Dave and the judges have a good feel for what most readers think is good. That's, in great part, where these features come from. To a certain extent we are subject to the judges' personal preferences. But them looking to a list of features helps correct for personal bias. A feature list helps you reject or accept for concrete reasons and not reasons like "I haven't eaten in six hours, so I'll breeze through this story" or "this story uses a word I wouldn't, or has a few too many typos." (The risk of one's belly determining accept/reject is very real: Daniel Kahnemann in Thinking Fast and Slow describes a rather terrifying study that reviewed the decisions of Israeli judges that assess prisoners' worthiness for parole. Approving parole peaked at about 30% in the early morning, tapered to almost 0% before lunch, went back to 30% after lunch, and tapered to almost 0% at end of day. That's what you get when the default decision is reject.)

RusticBohemian
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby RusticBohemian » Mon Feb 24, 2020 6:18 am

Thanks. I think you're probably right.

Andy Dibble wrote: There are some features of WotF winning stories that are almost indispensable (conflict, rich description, one or more problems to solve come to mind). I think a story would have to be breathtakingly strong in other respects (original premise, a fresh voice, pacing, character growth etc.) in order to overcome weakness in the former. The later list of features are definite bonuses, but I wouldn't call them indispensable. But try to check off as many boxes as you can! When you're competing against thousands of other writers, trying to stand strong only on whatever merits your story has is somewhere between a great risk and an act of self-deception.

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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby Reuben » Tue May 05, 2020 6:50 am

I still don't understand why they would put a story in the anthology which is so obviously different from the winning entries. Unless, of course they're telling you that there are times that you can break all the rules.

The way I look at it, this story is written like a sherlock holmes type style, in which the narrator is not the main character. Sure the detective is pepped up in several ways, but hey, Doyle also made specific mention of Watson's medical profession.

The real conflict, I feel, takes place in Jean and her father. The father found a true companion in the lost robot, but he then never talked to him again. He feels bad. Did he imagine it? No, that can't be, is the lost robot hiding from him on purpose? The father's sense of loyalty causes him to keep on searching for the robot, and keep on telling others about it, despite their disbelief.

Jean, on the other hand never met the said robot. She has a life of her own, completely different than her aging father. Her father's fantasy shouldn't be important to her; yet it is. Because of her sense of loyalty she goes out of her way to find the robot her father yearns for.

As I write this, I realize that this theme is further reflected in the robots' loyalty that they show by remaining in the lake for so many years.

I don't know if this answers all the problems with the story, but these were just some of my thoughts on reading it.
Last edited by Reuben on Wed May 06, 2020 1:03 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby morganb » Wed May 06, 2020 4:23 am

Ever since I started learning craft and technique and writing stories of my own — and also being involved in writing and critique groups — I've often found myself becoming overly critical of stories I write myself, as well as stories I read from others. It seems that sense of innocence and wonder I once felt has been lost in the process of learning to do it for myself. Kind of like losing appreciation for a finely prepared meal when you go back to the kitchen and see how it was actually prepared. "Did you seriously just use the five-second rule to stick that back on my plate? Gross!"

Some stories are written so immersively that I'm able to ignore my inner critic and simply engage with the story and enjoy the experience. Other stories are so obviously flawed that I simply can't finish them. In either case, and in every example in between, I kind of miss being able to pick up a story and just read it without noticing all the minor issues. The curtain has been pulled back and the crazy guy is revealed, standing at the controls and pushing all the buttons and fiddling with the dials. Some of the magic of just reading for enjoyment has been lost and I think that's sad.

Our readers, the ones not so disillusioned yet, aren't so critical (I hope). As long as the meal tastes good, they don't care how it was prepared. They don't notice (again, hopefully) that some of the frosting fell off and we had to stick it back on with our fingers. They just want a fun experience that takes them out of the humdrum of their ordinary lives for a while. They want wonder. They want adventure. They want escape. That's our job.
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Reuben
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby Reuben » Fri May 22, 2020 10:01 am

Ok, so once we're bashing non winning stories in V. 35... Just kidding, but I just read Yellow Submarine, and I'm having the same problems.

The hook is good, the beginning is good, she created a very believable milieu and interesting characters. There are a couple of saidisms, but I'm not one to comment on that.

My problem is the lack of conflict. Is it really about a fight between a mother and her kid? Because that really stops halfway through, and the problem never seems pressing; interesting, yes, but not pressing. There are a couple of close saves, but they never seem pressing, either; and it isn't the narrator who deals with them.

The story ends as expected that they get the Yellow Submarine, and then the kid says that he's going to watch the submarine races, something that's never mentioned previously in the story. To tell the truth, I found "Lost Robot" much more satisfying. Am I missing something?
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Re: What kind of story is, "Lost Robot?"

Postby disgruntledpeony » Sat May 23, 2020 8:34 am

Reuben wrote:Ok, so once we're bashing non winning stories in V. 35... Just kidding, but I just read Yellow Submarine, and I'm having the same problems.

The hook is good, the beginning is good, she created a very believable milieu and interesting characters. There are a couple of saidisms, but I'm not one to comment on that.

My problem is the lack of conflict. Is it really about a fight between a mother and her kid? Because that really stops halfway through, and the problem never seems pressing; interesting, yes, but not pressing. There are a couple of close saves, but they never seem pressing, either; and it isn't the narrator who deals with them.

The story ends as expected that they get the Yellow Submarine, and then the kid says that he's going to watch the submarine races, something that's never mentioned previously in the story. To tell the truth, I found "Lost Robot" much more satisfying. Am I missing something?


The heart of that story seemed, to me, to be how easy it was to relate to the story due to its comparisons with modern life. That meant you had an easier time understanding the mother's motivations and putting yourself in her shoes. It was also a humor piece, IMO, and humor is always going to be subjective. (That may be why you felt there was a lack of conflict--the conflicts were lighter, played for laughs.)
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